Alex Chilton 1950-2010
Great influence in the creative lives of others isn't always the result of major commercial success. Alex Chilton tasted both, but his true legacy isn't rooted in his moments of '60s teenybop chart placements with the Box Tops, best known for "The Letter," and later "Neon Rainbow," but in his three albums with the band he followed them with, Big Star. Their records sold poorly, despite reaping excellent reviews, but fell into the right hands, heads, and ears -- The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, and R.E.M., to name but three. They continue to reap much-deserved plaudits and respect, and their "September Gurls" provided The Bangles with one of their finest moments and Chilton with an early pension plan. Alex Chilton was born in Memphis in 1950, and blessed with a strong and powerful voice; at 16 he sounded like a mature black soul belter. A stunning high school talent contest rendition of Bobby Hebb's "Sunny" resulted in him being recommended to local band the Devilles, who were preparing sessions with Chips Moman.
After thirty takes of "The Letter" Chilton became a fixture in the newly re-named Box Tops, and topped the charts in the U.S. with that song, reaching number 5 in Britain, and becoming a global teen sensation. He was usually the sole member of the band employed in the studio, but his own compositions were frequently overlooked, and after four albums of increasing pop puppetry, he bowed out in 1969.
Relocating to New York, Chilton honed his talents as a guitarist and songwriter, but nothing appeared from this activity, and by 1971 he was back in Memphis. The ultimate irony resulting from his meanderings was a distinct change of voice. The boy who could sing like a black man now sounded deceptively mellow and English.
Securing a deal with the Stax offshoot Ardent, this new hybrid, part Kinks and mellow Stones, released their debut #1 Record in 1972, but despite great reviews, business proved far from brisk. Chilton's collaborator Chris Bell left, and the band briefly splintered before delivering the superlative Radio City, which suffered the same deluge of praise and paucity of sales. Despite being severely rattled by his lack of success, and increasingly reliant on drugs and alcohol, Chilton soldiered on, recording a third album with Memphis stalwart producer and pianist Jim Dickinson. Ardent took one listen and refused to release the record, although it surfaced many years later as Third/Sister Lovers, and fits well alongside the others, but Chilton was never entirely at ease with the results.
He again returned to New York, addicted to heroin, and with his glory days seemingly gone, he became an unlikely punk icon, but despite his seeming longevity he was only 26. Clinton produced The Cramps and released eclectic albums and singles on small labels, but the '80s found his work gaining increasing prominence. R.E.M. championed his influence, and The Replacements recorded a tribute to their hero called simply "Alex Chilton." The Bangles' rendition of "September Gurls" helped rekindle interest in Big Star's neglected gems, and the albums now command the respect one gives to the work of Love, Tim Buckley, and The Doors.
Over the years Chilton fronted various Box Tops and Big Stars, as well as playing with Tav Falco's Panther Burns, a Memphis-based Southern Gothic roots-rock band, but he always slipped back into the shadows. An enigma and a touchstone, he finally saw his Big Star records reach revered cult status. Given the length of his career, it seems extraordinary that at the time of his death from a suspected heart attack, he was only 59.